Friday, January 15, 2010

Seeing with two sets of eyes

Alex is another of the small group of photographer friends with whom I meet every other Monday. He, too, is mostly a people photographer so we have a lot to talk about. Alex is a city kid – born, raised, and lives in Seattle. Moreover, he and I are also from pretty much nuclear families. I have no siblings, he one much older brother. His wife, however, is from a large, extended family that has been on the ground in very rural Kansas for over a century. His wife’s family has made him very welcome and he thoroughly enjoys being in their midst – he quickly became the staff photographer, as it were. Alex still regards Kansas and the warmth and goofiness of large family gatherings with a mixture of curiosity and amazement. This set me to thinking of a show at Benham Gallery some years ago – I believe 1999 – by Concha Navarro and Kevin Bjorkland.

Ms. Navarro is originally from a small agrarian village in Spain, Mr. Bjorkland is, I believe, originally from Salt Lake City. They visited her home village in Spain and both of them photographed extensively while they were there. Their joint show was very successful – it even got a rave review (getting any review at all is rare) in the Seattle Times. Both of them were photographing the village and its people: both were there long enough that their work was not a “drive by shooting.” [Isn’t that a wonderful description of what some tourist photography looks like? Amanda Koster,, used it in a recent lecture and I shamelessly appropriated its use.] Both of them are excellent printmakers.

What Barbara and I both found most interesting was that we could stand back and look down the row of prints on each wall and guess which were hers and which were his – not subject matter, not shooting style, not technical skill but something else. We finally concluded that the difference was in the reaction, or lack of reaction, of the people in the photographs. He was a visitor, a welcome visitor to be sure but still a visitor. The people of the village noticed him and he was seeing them as an observer. She was Senora Navarro’s little girl. They could remember when she was six years old and had black braids and they were seeing her as part of the village. I wished then and wish now that they had done a book of the prints in that show. I’d sure buy one. We did buy a single print.

Neither of them appears still to be active as photographers. At least I can’t find any recent traces of them on the web. That’s a shame.

This, in turn, led me to thinking about a project I did several years ago. Before I retired I traveled a good deal on business. When in the midwest I would spend a weekend with my parents in the small, agrarian town in Illinois where I grew up – a small enough town that, even though I was only there once or twice a year, I couldn’t walk into the hardware store or the one local restaurant without having somebody ask me how my dad was doing. If the weather wasn’t exceptionally dreadful I would almost always take a roll or two of film. After a couple of decades there was quite a bit of it and I decided to see what I could do with it. I made a thick stack of 5x7 work prints, likely a couple of hundred, but couldn’t get an idea to jell. At the time I was studying off and on with a wonderful local photographer/teacher Nick Hanson so I showed my stack of work prints to him. He spread them out on his floor, stared at them for about 15 minutes and then began to shuffle them. When he finished he told me that it was obvious that I didn’t have a project here, I had three projects. In one of them, I loved this place. In the second, I hated this place. In the third, I was just an observer. In a sense, I sometimes I was Concha, sometimes Kevin. (I don’t know who I was in the “hated this place” stack.)

It’s too bad that Alex’s wife isn’t a more dedicated photographer. I would enjoy seeing a “Concha and Kevin” show from Kansas.

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